Saturday, October 10, 2009

Bob Dylan in Eugene, 10/8/09

My first Dylan show was 1988: my Dylan concert-going experience is entirely of the Never-Ending Tour. Twice in ’88, once in ’89, then not again until ’97, just before Time Out Of Mind came out. Saw him in Japan in the spring of that year, David Kemper’s first tour. Then not again until 2000. It was geography, certainly not apathy, that intervened. And from 2000 through 2005 I saw him over a dozen times. And then again, geography intervened, and I hadn’t seen him since spring of 2005 – until Thursday night in McArthur Court at the U of Oregon in Eugene.

For a good six years there, I got to watch the NET evolving up-close and in real time. I saw the Kemper/Campbell/Sexton band enough times to notice the difference when George replaced David. I got to see Freddy’s lineup, Hello Pork-Pie Hat. Ran into Larry Campbell in a diner on Charles Street in Boston (didn’t accost him). Got to see Stu’s first tour. Saw the six-piece band in a theater: missed Larry, but liked the new nuance of the larger outfit.

I’ve seen Dylan in an SRO nightclub, in a hockey rink, in outdoor sheds, at a county fairground, at a minor-league ballpark. But most of all, I’ve seen him in college basketball courts. Six colleges in four states on both coasts and in the middle. Two colleges I was actually connected with at the time. Six times I’ve seen him transform a big exposed-girder metal box, with ancient championship banners and brand-new Budweiser signs, sweat-soaked floorboards and dusty seats, into – well, into a lot of things. A country barn dance. An ancient highway under the stars. A cramped big-city loft with filled with smoke and too many ideas. The Titanic. The highlands.

First of those was a road trip to George Mason U in Virginia in ’88. I was a sophomore in college. Already knew, more or less, that I wanted to be a professor – like the history prof from my school who I’d run into at my very first Dylan show that summer.

And that last of these was last night, at McArthur Court at the U of Oregon, in Eugene.

McArthur Court, where the most recent national championship banner reads 1939, and the court’s older than that: generation after generation of frat boys has tanked up on beer here and gone outside to piss it out into the pioneer cemetery across the street.

Eugene, where the hippies crawled into the hills and stayed after the furor of the sixties died down: where Tibetan prayer flags decorate every third house, where tie-dyes are more common than neckties, where there’s a statue of Ken Kesey downtown. Where Dylan and the Dead played on their six-city stadium tour in 1987: Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Oakland, Anaheim, and little old Eugene.

U of Oregon: where, twenty-one years after the GMU show, and ten years after starting grad school, I am finally employed teaching college classes. I’m a first-term adjunct, hanging on to the academic precipice by my fingernails. But I do get to stand in front of students and talk about the things I love.

And now here we are: me, Mrs. Sgt. Tanuki, a lot of old hippies (cute, really, in their long white beards and pony-tails, their tie-dyes clean and soft from many washings, their Birkenstocks and enduring marriages), a few frat boys (current and ex-) here to see what the fuss is about, sneaking in their bourbon and diddling their Blackberries, and a whole lot of the usual inscrutable crowd you get at Dylan shows. Kids here to see history run into their history teachers; wannabe novelists hiding out as office managers run into the real thing, both real things. At Dead shows you saw a lot of closet Deadheads, and knew you were all alike, really, deep down inside; at Dylan shows you see a lot of closet Dylan fans, but wonder if you have anything in common, besides your reverence for the Word, the protean Word.

We’ve shown up early so we can get a good spot on the floor – it’s general admission. We end up about twenty deep from the stage. We sit for a while. Stand when the crowd starts pressing in. Finally the Nag Champa starts rolling invisibly out over the floor; over the course of the night this will be augmented by the scent of what I can only assume (not being a partaker of the sacrament myself) is prime Oregon bud.

The band comes out. The stage lights come up. A raunchy blues riff blasts out of the speakers. And we’re off. Watching the river flow. I’d been hoping for “Gonna Change My Way Of Thinking,” new this tour, but no dice. This is good, though. Dylan on guitar, not always the case these days. He’s holding it weird, almost vertical, hugging its neck to his neck. The first of many odd, humorous physical gestures the old bard will make tonight: whoever first said he had a lot of Charlie Chaplin in him was dead on.

But the first thing I’m feeling is the shock of remembrance of how much I love the rhythm section of Tony Garnier and George Recile. I have my issues with live concert sound – seldom attend rock shows because you can never really hear what’s going on musically – and Dylan shows are no exception. That said, Recile’s a superman on the skins – not a madman, but a superman, hitting everything right, hard, also subtle, giving the groove that little New Orleans goose when it needs it, but letting it saunter unmolested down the middle of the sidewalk when it needs too. And Tony - well, someday someone’s going to write a Dylan biography that gives the Never-Ending Tour its due, and Tony’s going to emerge as the real unsung hero of the man’s career. Twenty years on the tour. Nobody but nobody has played with Dylan anywhere near as long. If Dylan’s razor-toting, gunslinging, tire-chain-swinging live poetry over the last two decades has meant anything (and it has), it’s in large part because of Garnier’s unimpeachable solidity at bass.

The river flows, flows to the sea. Song ends, we’re in recession America, where capitalism is broken, not to mention above the law, recession Willamette Valley, where for a lot of people there’s nothing left to do but sit on that bank of sand and watch the river flow. But this is Oregon: people have learned how to make do with little in the way of worldly goods, making up for it with, you know, Tibetan prayer flags, bud, and love. And what’s wrong with that?

“The Man In Me.” Dylan on keyboards. An almost (almost) funky groove, Dylan singing very rhythmically. He’s in good voice tonight: gruff and sepulchral, just like on Together Through Life, but also just as conscious of timing as he is there. The rest of the band: Charlie Sexton’s new on guitar, an old friend back for a second go-round. He still looks like a magazine-cover boy gone to seed. Stu Kimball is still around on second (or third or occasionally fourth) guitar, and I still can’t really tell what he brings to the band. Only occasionally can I pick out what he’s doing tonight, and unfailingly when I can, it’s at a moment when I can’t tell what Donnie Herron’s doing – meaning one of them is unnecessary. And Donnie at least can play wild-card instruments.

Trumpet, for instance, like he does on “Beyond Here Lies Nothin’.” First TTL song of the night, and a beaut. The trumpet’s pretty much lost in the mix, but I appreciate the gesture. The song is a perfect opener on the album, but it’s also perfect in third slot: after the jump-starting opener and the cruise-altitude second number, now we can start getting down to (as another Man says) what’s really real, really real, really real. Which is the deep, dark groove that’s going to dominate the night’s proceedings.

But only after a brief break for a light-hearted “Don’t Think Twice.” Dylan’s on electric here, and: well, what can you say? After all these years the guy still can’t play lead guitar worth a damn. At least that’s the first impression. He’s still holding it vertically, and this time he’s playing at least as many bum notes as right ones. Really loud and obvious clangers. It’s like me on Guitar Hero or something. Which is actually kind of funny, and what makes it funnier is that Dylan and Sexton, a real live guitar hero, and therefore of course underutilized tonight, keep mugging at each other, lining up as if they were Keef’n’Ronnie practicing the Ancient Art. …Well, the joke’s on me, because oddly enough Dylan’s second solo is actually pretty decent, and by the end of the song he’s playing, not virtuoso leads, but something like his harp solos, proficient enough to get his ideas across, and then those ideas are idiosyncratic enough to do the rest.

But now it’s really down to business. The next five songs are just bruising, each one blacker and bluer than the last, all of them finding Tony and George digging deep like gravemakers, Charlie hammering together the pinewood box, and Stu and Donnie tossing roses on the top. And Bob? Bob’s reading out the sermon.

Which says: America, till I fell in love with you it seemed like you’d go your way and I’d go mine but now we’re stuck in it together like it or not I’m married to the daughter of the devil and I like it it’s liberating and scary all at once and most of all it’s reality but I said that and that’s how I ended up being run twenty miles out of town tied to a humming steel rail. Or something like that. Something like that that finds triumph in despair and despair in triumph, and all sorts of other Derridean tandems. Deconstructing blues and pop and poetry. Listen to Dylan’s voice, floating like a lead butterfly, stinging like Bactine on a beesting: that’s the hobo’s lullaby.

“Till I Fell In Love With You.” New groove, at least since I last saw it live. Lots of tension here, and little release. A scream, not a seduction. Dark. “Most Likely You Go Your Way.” Perverse: he’s got the trumpet in the band, why not use it here? I find myself thinking of the first time I saw him play this, back in ’89 – I have the bootleg – the beat got turned around for most of the song, but somehow that just added a lurching, pissed-off power to it. I’ve always liked that version.

“My Wife’s Hometown,” second TTL song of the night. An obvious blues, but they play it so well. So gently and ominously. It’s a midnight blues (the lighting crew gives us a starry sky to point this out). Charlie, by the way, seems really happy to be there, and onstage he seems to have assumed a central role in the band – of everybody he’s making the most eye contact with Bob, and every time he does, he turns around and conveys something with his eyes to Tony and George. He’s smiling a lot, sinking to his knees to squeeze out riffs, and playing chief foil to the song-and-dance man on stage left.

“Desolation Row.” I’ve never seen Bob do this. I’m thrilled when I hear that opening guitar figure. This version, with Dylan on organ, is as much 1994 and MTV Unplugged as it is 1965, and I mean that as a good thing: I’ve always loved the chill wind Brendan O’Brien blew into that version, and Dylan seems to be trying to channel that tonight. It’s effective. What’s more effective is when he gets to the last verse and, having found a simple singsongy keyboard riff he likes, he proceeds to adapt it as a vocal melody, delivering the final lines in a flat, evenly-timed, descending figure that has nothing to do with the original melody, and is cool because of it, driving home the song’s message of alienation and liberation. He almost sounds bored (almost: I’ve heard him when he really sounded bored, and it was different): theatrically bored, blasé about the nausea of existence.

“Cold Irons Bound.” The Time Out Of Mind raver. Twelve years old now, if you can believe that. Dylan leaves his keyboards now, doesn’t pick up his guitar: stands alone at the mic and sings, something he never used to do until comparatively recently. It’s a dashing move, like suddenly he’s embracing the crooning side of his art. There’s the Chaplin thing again, one hand flashing a harmonica, the other held in a pose that could either be fey or arthritic.

“I Feel A Change Comin’ On” lightens the mood a bit, and the crowd seems to sing along. But it’s only a deep breath before the plunge: “Highway 61” puts the pedal to the metal, and does what this song always does, or at least has always done since it awoke to its true nature sometime in the mid-‘90s, which is to burn down whatever barn is handy with the sheer heat of its exhaust.

And then (killer) they follow this up with “Po’ Boy,” an absolutely heartbreaking rendition. This is emotional whiplash in the making. This one’s got jokes in it. Can we handle any jokes at this point in the night? At this point in 2009?

Then it’s the Alicia Keys number. Old hat to everyone, but new to me, since I never saw any of the Modern Times shows. I’m glad he tossed in one of its numbers. Yes, it does pretty much what “Summer Days” used to: or rather, exactly what “Summer Days” used to, now, which is give Sexton room to fly.

Then – then – then. “Ballad Of A Thin Man.” To close the main set. With Dylan, not at the keyboards, but standing solo in front of the mic again. Lights from below throwing big shadows on the scrim. I repeat: he closed the main set with this. Good lord. By this point the nerve endings of your intellect are raw and exposed (“you’ve been with the professors” he sings, to a college audience, for the millionth time), and maybe you’re ready to admit, in front of the Pac 10 banner and everybody, that you don’t know what’s going on.

And we take a little break. Screaming in the dark. The springy floorboards are good for stamping on, so we all do. Encore, please. Redemption.

“Like A Rolling Stone.” As sweet as ever. This was always a hymn, of course.

“Jolene.” A little good-time music to take us off of the dark highway and into a clean, well-lit roadhouse (well, cleaner than that road-kill-filled highway was). The equivalent of the “Sally Goodin” Hank Williams used to send us home with.

“All Along The Watchtower.” There must be some way out of here. He sings the last lines as a musical mirror image of the last lines of “Desolation Row,” an even-timed ascending figure in a rich resounding baritone, a new melody, playful and striking.

Bob Dylan is the greatest living American artist. No one else even comes close.

As always, the lights stay down for a while after the band leaves the stage. I know he won’t come out for a second encore. He never does. But they always leave the lights down for a few minutes, and I always stay and scream and stamp. I do this time, too. He doesn’t come back.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Ken Kesey and Moby Dick

I haven't written about books for a while. That's because I'm in the middle of a mother of one, Ken Kesey's Sometimes A Great Notion. It's brilliant, but long and not a quick read; plus, I'm busy starting a new job. If I ever get through it I'll write about it, but in the meantime it keeps reminding me of Moby Dick, so here's one from the vault, what I wrote about that when I read it a couple of summers ago, before I had a blog.

(Why does Notion remind me of Moby Dick? It's long and mad, written by a man who can write like an angel and is more interested in sweaty work than drawing-rooms; it's tackling the big questions of the author's America in wild-eyed, bare-knuckled fashion. Notion is rather experimental in its techniques; instead of stream-of-consciousness it's more like stream-of-consciousnesses, a whole town-and-country full of them, and I'm sure there are more immediate precedents: I haven't really dealt with the great Modernists, only read a little Joyce and Faulkner, but it probably picks up something from them: in its flirting with incoherence it's certainly of a piece with Kesey's beat compadres Kerouac and Burroughs, but it's less nihilistic than Burroughs and more novelistic than Kerouac. The introducer compares Kesey to Tolstoy, and it's true that here at least he's got the big soul of a 19th-century novelist. Ergo, Melville.)


Herman Melville. Moby-Dick. 1851. Penguin, 1992.

Ishmael sails on a Nantucket whaler. The captain, Ahab, is obsessed with a white whale that bit off his leg. He chases it halfway around the globe. The first mate Starbuck tries to reason with him, but in the end he pursues his vendetta until Moby Dick sinks the ship and kills everybody except Ishmael.

God damn is this a fantastic fucking book. I mean a brilliant fucking masterpiece, maybe the best novel I’ve ever read, certainly in the top five or ten. God it’s awesome. From the first word to the last, before he even says Call me Ishmael, it’s a total and complete majestic mindfuck.

I can’t believe I waited this long to read it.

It’s the pinnacle of American letters. No doubt.

I love everything about it. The wannabe Shakespeare rhetoric, the Whitmanesque flights of poetry and encyclopedism, the ominous eighty-odd epitaphs, the doomy atmosphere, the epic trappings, the sea-story of it, the weird philosophy, the unabashed exoticism of it. This is a novel, man.

My take on it, in a short paragraph, partially inspired by the intro by Andrew Delbanco: the Pequod is a community, and in a way it’s about the individual Ishmael submerging his identity in the community, which submerges its identity in that of its fearless leader. At the end they follow him to their deaths, but Ishmael is lucky, and is snapped back into his individual identity. Lucky or unlucky, take your pick. Meanwhile, what does the whale mean? It’s everything: it’s the entire struggle of life and history and fate and God and meaninglessness. The pasteboard masks: maybe life’s meaningless, maybe it’s suffused with meaning: we can’t know, but we have to grapple with it anyway, because the masks are there.

What I love most about this book (besides the language, which is good to the last drop) is how fucking weird it is. It’s disjointed, it’s digressive, it’s daring, it’s pretentious, it’s got almost no plot to speak of for the middle four hundred pages. But meaning follows form: that’s the point: the long, lazy, sea passage, where we lose plot, lose character, just think, just float, and isn’t that better than the poisonous melancholy of the beginning or the sucking vortex of the end? But can we avoid either?

I love this book.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra: A Love Supreme (2004)

This, as Pigpen once said, is gonna suck real good.

A big band version of A Love Supreme? You've got to be kidding, sez I.

And parts are just as bad as you'd expect. The "Psalm" section is glitzy, pretty, Sunday-best-suit religious rather than earnest, raw, mountaintop-sweaty spiritual as it should be. Elsewhere there are sections where Coltrane's gorgeous probing melodies are rendered with all the sensitivity of muzak.

But for every tin-eared passage there's one that, unexpectedly, works. They respect the polyrhythms, they do the best they can to translate Coltrane's sheets of sound into sheets of sounds, plural, and every once in a while they really make you sit up and take notice. Like at the end of the "Acknowledgement" section. This is where Coltrane and co. start chanting, sounding frankly pretty sick. Marsalis and co. render this as a conversation between every horn and woodwind in the band, each repeating the "a love supreme" melodic figure in a different register and voice, with the clarinet playing this weird, quasi-Eastern sounding improv behind it. At first it sounds silly, then it sounds fun, then it sounds just plain brilliant.

I've said it before: I like ambitious failures better than safe successes, usually. Inevitably, I like this. I commend it. This is the kind of stuff the LCJO should be trying on record.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 15: Instinct

So this episode ends with Echo telling Ballard that she not only remembers all her imprints, but feels them, feels all the things they did, all the things the Dollhouse made them do and want to do.

She says this as she’s coming down from an episode of near-homicidal violence driven by a maternal protectiveness she feels toward a child not her own, triggered by Dollhouse manipulation. Not just brain manipulation but, as Topher brags, body manipulation (as if the two are not one): they’ve made Echo’s body act as if it had just born a baby. She’s lactating, for God’s sake. And she’s willing to kill to get this baby back. Until she’s talked down, made to realize that what she’s feeling, what her body is telling her, is not real. She has to accept that not only her brain but her own body, her own deepest nature as a woman, has been mobilized against her, to deceive and betray her. She’s alienated from her own body.

And she accepts it, as just one more violation the Dollhouse has perpetrated on her person, one more indignity she must endure if she’s going to bring them down. But she’s not happy about it. Notice how closely the final scene of this episode parallels the final scene of the previous episode: she and Ballard gazing out on an artificial environment (the Dollhouse there, here a playground), talking about real things, her memories and what she wants to do about it. In “Vows” she’s confident, even defiant, and she’s talking about what she knows, what she’s aware of. Here she’s talking about what she feels, and she sounds weary, and almost broken.

For the first time I, as a viewer, really begin to feel the tragedy of her situation. Echo has never really moved me. November moved me. Whiskey moved me. But Echo: maybe this says more about me than the show, but Echo was always interesting to me, rather than affecting. But this: this moved me.

This is what the second season has done best so far: bring the emotion. They’re still working the subtext hard, but even with all the talk about undeniable human instincts in this episode I don’t think they’re taking the subtext of the tech anywhere we absolutely hadn’t considered based on last season. They’re marching in place in that regard: but with Whiskey last episode and Echo here, they’re taking time to make us feel the human cost of this technology.

Other things:

November’s back. And suddenly we’re forced to ask, along with her, does the Dollhouse ever let anybody go? Why would they? How could they? Do we really believe DeWitt hasn’t had her imprinted with a sleeper program? For that matter, do we really believe she has her original memories back complete? She thinks her baby died of cancer, and that all the Dollhouse did was take away the grief. Is that really what happened? How would she know?

Topher’s teachable moment. Once again he outsmarts himself, but when Paul figures out the problem, Topher is surprisingly quick to acknowledge it. “I learned!” he says. Give him his due: he really does love knowledge.

Curious how in “Vows” they have Echo getting married and in “Instinct” they have her mothering a newborn. It might be accidental, but it seems to me that they’re starting out this season by taking her through young-adult rites of passage. If this is a composite bildungsroman, they’re giving her all the important experiences. As opposed to last season: there she was a midwife, helping but not participating.

Senator Perrin. So far I’m a little disappointed in this character. I liked Alexis Denisof in Buffy and Angel. I liked him a lot. But he comes across as rather lightweight here. I appreciate the character, though: the Senator with a Bee up his Bonnet is such a staple of comic books (think the X-Men films) that it’s kind of fun to see Whedon deploy it here.

Isn’t it nice how subtly they’re being in developing Victor and Sierra’s relationship? Just glimpses here and there, nothing much said, but it means the world if you know what you're seeing; a nice nod to people who were paying attention last season, and in the off-season. In all Mutant Enemy is being pretty unforgiving of any new viewers who might be wandering in now, wondering what the fuss was about: there’s been a little bring-‘em-up-to-speed dialogue, but not a whole lot.

We know what we know.